Ruth Bader Ginsburg is, in short, legendary. Her decades-long legal battles for gender equality, along with her frequent dissenting opinions as SCOTUS veered right in the 2000s, made her a beacon of hope, a real-life hero, a celebrity, and icon later in life, and even a meme: the Notorious RBG.
Her death on Friday — from complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer — left many across the nation heartbroken at the enormity of her loss. That her seat on the Supreme Court could be filled by a Trump nominee is especially bitter, but beyond the politics of the moment, and, perhaps, the decades to come, is also the shocking reminder that someone so larger than life — a bonafide intellectual giant and badass, the lone figure standing between us and the darkness — could be taken from us.
At least, that was how I felt when I returned home from my run Friday night to hear my wife deliver the news: Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. I thought she was mistaken. The woman had survived four previous bouts with cancer, heart surgery, and three fractured ribs. Maybe this was just more fake news. It’s easy to imagine a figure like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, revered for her defiance and her dissenting opinions, a four-time survivor of cancer, as somehow transcending mortality. But no, this was a sad reality: We had officially lost her.
Ginsburg rose, improbably, at a time when women were confined to the domestic sphere. She was one of only nine women admitted to Harvard Law School in 1956. She later transferred to Columbia Law School where she graduated with top honors — but was unable to secure a job. As reported Friday in NPR, “[I]t was bad enough that she was a woman, [Ginsburg] recalled later, but she was also a mother, and male judges worried she would be diverted by her ‘familial obligations.'”
After she secured a teaching position at Rutgers University in the 1960s, she had to hide her second pregnancy “by wearing her mother-in-law’s clothes,” NPR reports. “The ruse worked: her contract was renewed before her baby was born.”
She rose to further legal — and public — prominence after she started litigating gender rights. In Morwitz v. Commissioner, she petitioned on behalf of an unmarried man to claim a tax deduction for caregiving costs, which previously extended only to women and widowers. She wrote the amicus curiae brief in Reed v. Reed, which resulted in SCOTUS extending the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to women.
She was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980, where she earned a reputation — oddly enough — for being a somewhat moderate jurist. In 1993, when she was nominated by Bill Clinton to be the second woman to serve in SCOTUS, some feminist critics were worried because of her critical views on Roe v. Wade, which she believed took the wrong line of reasoning: determining a woman’s right to choose based on privacy, and not on gender equality, which she feared would leave the Court’s decision vulnerable to future litigation.
But Ginsburg’s liberal views, and her star power, only strengthened, especially as the court swung toward the conservative side during the administration of George W. Bush. In 2009, she took an unprecedented step following the SCOTUS decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, which resulted in the court denying Lilly Ledbetter equal pay on account of statute of limitations; in her dissent, Ginsburg called on Congress to undo the Court’s interpretation of the law and later worked with President Obama on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
In 2014, she issued a fiery dissent of the Court’s decision to side with Hobby Lobby by granting for-profit employers the right to deny employees contraception on the grounds of religious belief. In her dissent, she pointed out that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act — which the majority opinion cited as reasons for siding with Hobby Lobby — did not allow religious groups to. “The reason why,” she wrote, “is hardly obscure: Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community. Indeed, by law, no religion-based criterion can restrict the workforce of for-profit corporations. … The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention. One can only wonder why the Court shuts this key difference from sight.”
Her willingness to stand up to the patriarchy in general — and her male SCOTUS colleagues specifically — has made her a figurehead of feminism and an icon to our community.
At a time when the country appears particularly on edge — and when the rights of women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ persons to control their own bodies and choices are under grave threat from an increasingly right-leaning government — having a voice on our side in the highest court of the land means something, even if all that voice could do was dissent with the majority opinion.
Ginsburg might have been larger than life, but she understood what it was like to be a woman and to face discrimination purely on the basis on one’s sex. She brought that understanding to the law and helped make things better for women everywhere. As Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times, the grief we feel is “also a deeply personal loss.” With Ginsburg’s death, it’s almost as if we’ve lost a little bit of ourselves as well.
But I doubt Ginsburg would want us to dwell in our sorrow for too long. Yes, she was an icon. Yes, she stood up to those who kept their feet on our necks (if I might borrow a phrase from her). And while we might have lost one of our most powerful advocates, Ginsburg herself knew all too well what it was like to lack power — yet that never stopped her from fighting for it.
May her memory be a blessing. May her memory be a revolution. Let’s let the sense of loss, and the grief we feel now, drive us to preserve her legacy — and ours.